All of that was seriously undermined Wednesday.
In an interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his most direct confirmation to date that he issued a stern warning to Russia about the alleged bounties — and that other military leaders have raised the issue, too.
“What we’ve said is this: If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay,” Pompeo told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov. I know our military has talked to their senior leaders as well. We won’t brook that; we won’t tolerate that.”
Pompeo has previously said he brought this up with Lavrov, but his answers were less specific.
Asked on July 15 whether he and Lavrov spoke about it, Pompeo said, “Yes, of course,” but he didn’t comment specifically on what was said about them.
Two weeks later at a Senate hearing, he was asked the question and offered opaque confirmation.
“I want to be very careful about what’s public record and what’s intelligence-based,” Pompeo said. “But yes, I can assure you and the American people that each time I’ve spoken with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I’ve raised all of the issues that put any American interests at risk.”
Asked again whether the bounties specifically came up, Pompeo said: “I’m going to tell you that — make no mistake about it — the proper people have been aware of every single threat to our soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, whether that was General [Austin S.] Miller or my team at the embassy there in Kabul.”
What’s different about Pompeo’s latest comments is that he confirmed this rose to the level of issuing an actual warning to Russia — rather than, say, merely asking questions. The New York Times reported last week that Pompeo had done this in a July 13 call with Lavrov, and now Pompeo is effectively confirming that.
That warning, though, notably came just six days after Trump had dismissed the whole thing as a “hoax.”
“As far as the bounty is concerned: I think it’s a hoax,” Trump told Gray Television on July 7. “I think it’s a Democrat hoax, because good people in intelligence said that they did not think it rose to the level of bringing it to the president. Nobody brought it to me. But they said, ‘It didn’t rise to that level.' ”
Trump had said the week before that, “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party.”
Even around the same time Trump was tweeting that on July 1, though, his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was on Fox News saying something very different. O’Brien confirmed that the situation was serious enough that plans were being drafted in case the intelligence was substantiated. And now Pompeo confirms that it all warranted a stern warning to Lavrov.
Another curious part of the timeline: 10 days after Pompeo issued this warning — on July 23 — Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump would later say that they didn’t discuss the bounties because it “was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
So this was important enough for Pompeo to discuss with Lavrov on July 13, but 10 days later Trump felt it was too “fake news” to confront the man who runs the country.
Here’s a recap on the timeline:
- June 26: First reports about the alleged bounties.
- June 28: Trump says “intel” told him the info wasn’t credible and that it was “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax."
- July 1: Trump more directly calls it a “hoax,” even as O’Brien says contingencies had been developed.
- July 7: Trump calls it a “hoax” again.
- July 13: Pompeo issues his warning to Lavrov.
- July 23: Trump declines to discuss the issue with Putin because he still views it as being “fake news."
This is a familiar dance with Trump and his advisers, and it’s one that has been repeated time and again particularly when it comes to Russia. He will utterly dismiss or call into question something that has been reported — such as Russia’s 2016 election interference — while those around him will assure that it’s being taken seriously behind closed doors. It was likewise with the coronavirus, which Trump downplayed for two months and even invoked the “hoax” language (while maintaining he wasn’t actually calling the virus itself a hoax).
The problem is that the two versions are almost impossible to square. If this is serious enough for Pompeo to issue a stern warning to Lavrov, it would seem serious enough to bring it to Trump’s attention and for Trump to raise the issue with Putin. If the nation’s top diplomat is putting Russia on notice about something — however substantiated it is by the intelligence — how can it also be a “hoax” or “fake news?"
It can’t. But as has been reported by The Washington Post and confirmed recently by the Times, advisers don’t like to bring bad news about Russia to Trump because he doesn’t want to hear it. It seems possible that’s what happened here — that Trump simply won’t believe something that those around him are quite worried about. But that’s a thoroughly unreassuring way to run a country, particularly when it comes to something that could — and intelligence has indicated already has — cost the lives of American troops.